Photo Credit: Cory A. Davis
Jun 08
June 8, 2016

Jesse Gerstin

Senior Policy Manager, Clinton Climate Initiative

Living and Breathing Oceans


I love to run. This is partly for fitness reasons, but also because it is one of the few opportunities in my day when I can mentally focus on the way my body functions. Most of the time people are not conscious of their own breathing, yet we are acutely aware that our bodies need to continue breathing to survive. Similarly, our planet is a living, breathing ecosystem. Our planet also has two lungs – our forests and our oceans – that cycle in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and release oxygen.

Our planet also has two lungs – our forests and our oceans – that cycle in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and release oxygen.

Human activity is altering the way in which our planet’s lungs can do their job effectively. Many of us are already aware of trees and forests and the critical role they play in storing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through photosynthesis. When forests are cut down or burned, this carbon is released back into the atmosphere, which accelerates global warming.

Less well known, but of equal importance, is the role our oceans play in regulating and maintaining a healthy planet. Oceans cover a little over 70 percent of the earth’s surface, and contain about 97 percent of its total water. Plants and microorganisms living in the ocean – mostly phytoplankton and algae in large abundance – absorb as much carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as trees, and in turn release vast quantities of oxygen. And there is growing evidence that marine vertebrates such as fish and turtles also play an important function in helping to regulate the ocean carbon cycle.

Oceans also help to reduce global climate change by absorbing about a quarter of the carbon dioxide that humans emit. This carbon dioxide dissolves in the ocean, making the ocean more acidic. It is estimated that since the Industrial Revolution, our oceans have become 30 percent more acidic, and that by the end of this century acidity at the ocean surface could increase by up to 150 percent. This is important because increasingly acidic oceans make it more difficult for organisms such as shellfish and coral to grow, and indeed the widespread dying of corals is already being observed in iconic places such as Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

Oceans also help to reduce global climate change by absorbing about a quarter of the carbon dioxide that humans emit. 

Oceans also trap heat. Think if you put a bottle of water out in the sun all day, that water will continue to be warm for some time even after the sun goes down. In a similar fashion, our planet’s oceans are absorbing extra heat caused by human-induced global warming. Like our air temperature, our oceans are also getting warmer year by year. These warmer oceans lead to the release of more water vapor, which fuels tropical storms. In fact, as 15 of the 16 warmest years on record have occurred since 2001 (with 2015 being the warmest of them all), perhaps it is no surprise that three of the strongest tropical storms on record have also taken place within the past six months.

Global Recognition
Being the eternal optimist, however, I see signs of hope and positive change.

For one, the importance of oceans is increasingly gaining valuable recognition at a global level. An important step is the inclusion of oceans as one of seventeen goals defined by the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals for focusing international development efforts through the year 2030. The Paris Climate Agreement that was reached last year and already ratified by over 175 countries also represents a remarkable achievement in recognizing climate change from human activity and laying out a plan to reduce its impact – including the conservation of oceans.

Many countries are also taking steps to protect their sovereign oceans ecosystems. They are establishing Marine Protected Areas, areas where human activity – including fishing, shipping, and offshore mining – is manageably reduced or halted entirely. This allows for critical ocean ecosystems to continue functioning, not only from a climate perspective, but also as a refuge for fish and other marine vertebrates who are often facing severe population decline. Currently only 2 percent of the world’s oceans are protected, but countries as diverse as Palau and Kiribati in the Pacific, Seychelles in the Indian Ocean, and the United States, have been dramatically increasing their Marine Protected Areas over the past few years.

At the Clinton Foundation we are also doing our part. President Clinton and leaders from several island nations took the step of recognizing the importance of oceans by launching a new partnership called Blue Guardians in September 2015. This partnership brings together island governments, the Clinton Climate Initiative, leading private sector technology and data providers, international conservation organizations and financial institutions to support marine and fisheries conservation, increase island resilience to climate change, while developing sustainable island economies.

Individual Action
And at an individual level, this June 8th marks World Oceans Day, an opportunity for each and every one of us to take action. This year’s theme is “Healthy Oceans, Healthy Planet” and organizations and individuals around the world are taking steps to reduce the amount of plastic pollution entering our oceans. It is now estimated that at least 5.25 trillion pieces – 269,000 tons – of plastic are distributed across the ocean. The ocean’s currents collect this plastic into so-called dead zones where ocean life has become nearly impossible and has a devastating effect on ecosystems. But individuals such as yourselves are taking action by organizing beach cleanups, reducing the amount of plastic waste we throw away, and raising awareness about the vital role of oceans.

Perhaps our connection to the oceans is best captured by explorer and oceanographer Dr. Sylvia Earle, who writes that “even if you never have the chance to see or touch the ocean, the ocean touches you with every breath you take, every drop of water you drink, every bite you consume. Everyone, everywhere is inextricably connected to and utterly dependent upon the existence of the sea.” Just as our bodies depend on our lungs to breathe, our planet depends on the oceans and forests to do its breathing. Whether or not we are conscious of these cycles, we depend on them to maintain healthy bodies and healthy ecosystems. Today we should take a moment to celebrate our oceans. 

Visit the Impact Library to find more information on natural resources, oceans, and other social impact topics.